New York unveils plan to charge car drivers in Midtown, Lower Manhattan

Motorists would have to shell out $11.52 to drive into the busiest parts of Manhattan under a new proposal commissioned by Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo to ease traffic congestion and raise vital funds for mass transit.

Toll idea, which originates with the state, is variation on one that previously failed

In this Jan. 11, 2018 file photo, traffic makes it's way across 42nd Street in New York City. A congestion pricing plan to ease gridlock by making part of Manhattan a toll zone was announced Friday. (Mary Altaffer/Associated Press)

Motorists would have to shell out $11.52 US to drive into the busiest parts of Manhattan under a new proposal commissioned by Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo to ease traffic congestion and raise vital funds for mass transit.

Trucks would pay even more — $25.34 — while taxi cabs, Uber rides and for-hire vehicles would be charged between $2 and $5 per ride. The pricing zone would cover Manhattan south of 60th Street.

The idea, called "congestion pricing," involves using electronic tolling to charge vehicles for entering certain parts of town during especially busy times. The proposal is expected to face stiff opposition in the legislature, which must approve portions of the plan. Similar plans have failed before after concerns were raised about the impact on commuters.

"There are going to be some naysayers," said former Bronx Borough President Freddy Ferrer, a Metropolitan Transportation Authority board member who served on a task force created by Cuomo to study the idea. The panel released its proposal Friday. "It's clear that the status quo is no longer acceptable."

London and Singapore already have similar congestion surcharges in place. Supporters of the idea say it will address gridlock and raise money for mass transit. Skeptics, including Democratic Mayor Bill de Blasio, worry that tolls could be a burden, especially to middle class and low-income commuters. Similar concerns doomed a congestion pricing plan from former Mayor Michael Bloomberg a decade ago.

Andy Byford is the president of New York City Transit Authority, starting the job this week after five years as head of the Toronto Transit Commission. He told the New York Times earlier this week that congestion pricing is worth considering.

Transit badly needs repairs, funding

Cuomo stopped short of fully endorsing the proposal's details on Friday but said New York must address traffic and fix a subway system beset by breakdowns and delays. He noted that as a Queens native he understands the concerns of commuters.

"I have outer-borough blood in my veins, and it is my priority that we keep costs down for hardworking New Yorkers and encourage use of mass transit," he said.

Only four per cent of the residents of Queens, the Bronx, Brooklyn or Staten Island, about 118,000 people, commute to Manhattan in vehicles, the task force says. Of those, fewer than 5,000 are considered poor.

Yasmin Sohrawardy, who drives from Queens into Manhattan twice a week for her job as a financial software developer, opposes any proposal to charge drivers.

"The people in the outer boroughs, who don't have access to public transportation the way people do in Manhattan, can't possibly afford this," said Sohrawardy, 47. "It's going to be extraordinarily expensive. If you live in Manhattan, you can take subways, buses or taxis."

The fees on taxis and for-hire vehicles could take effect within a year, followed by trucks and then cars in 2020, according to the report. The task force said that none of the fees should be charged until mass transit repairs are made.

New York Mayor Mayor Bill de Blasio, left, and Gov. Andrew Cuomo have often disagreed on issues concerning the metropolis, just one of the challenges in making the proposal a reality. (Craig Ruttle/Associated Press)

The congestion pricing task force was created by Cuomo last year after he declared a state of emergency in the subways. Details from a draft of the proposal were first reported Thursday night by The New York Times.

De Blasio said he wants a guarantee that revenue from the surcharge will go toward public transportation. He said the proposal is a "step in the right direction" compared to earlier versions, though he continues to push for a millionaires' tax to raise revenue for transit.

"We need to know a lot more," he said on WNYC radio Friday. "What we still don't see is money … being put in a lock box that would only fund transit in New York City."

Economic impact of congestion

It's reasonable to charge motorists more to drive into Manhattan, according to Nick Sifuentes, executive director of the Tri-State Transportation Campaign, since travelers using the subway, buses, ferries and trains already pay a fare to reach Manhattan.

"The only folks who don't pay at all are drivers — and those cars are clogging our streets, polluting our air, and harming the economy," he said. "If you choose to drive into the most transit-rich neighbourhoods in the United States, it's only fair that you also pay your fair share too."

Uber said it supports congestion pricing if it's applied to all vehicles and the revenue goes to mass transit. But the Independent Drivers Guild, which represents 60,000 drivers for Uber, Lyft and other ride-hailing companies, said surcharges could be "devastating" to drivers if they are forced to absorb the higher costs instead of passing them to passengers.

Traffic congestion will cost the New York City region an estimated $100 billion over the next five years, according to a report from The Partnership for New York City.